Like many people, by March 2021 I felt worn down to a shadow of my former self. There had been no school, sports, or social activities for kids in my area for a year and I was tired of being teacher, playmate, athletic coach, and counselor for my children. As my birthday approached, I longed for one gift: an entire weekend ALONE. And silence.
In my work as music director for the Methodist Church I'd been researching chanting traditions, which led to studying monasticism and the "desert fathers" of long ago. The benefits of silent retreat became clear to me, as a matter of spiritual hygiene. Modern research (Spiritual retreats alter brain's reward, emotion centers (medicalnewstoday.com) has indicated that periods of retreat can have a positive effect on the brain and overall well-being. I resolved to try it and found a convent that offered a cottage for use as a place of retreat.
As I ascended the long drive into a hilltop forest and got my first glimpse of The Community of St. John Baptist, my heart pounded. What was I getting myself into? Having been a non-believer and avoider of church most of my life, I'd only seen nuns on TV. I had certainly never talked to one. Now I had an appointment with "Sister Pamela" and saw real-life nuns walking around. Would they see right through me? I am a church-goer now but... I still curse and tell dirty jokes and I love rock music and I drink wine! Am I a sinner, too impure to be here? Thoughts of Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act came to mind.
Sister Pamela and her dog Jenny greeted me, showed me to my cottage, and left me alone. Her kind, non-questioning presence relaxed me. I spent my first hour relishing the simple joy of my cottage, like a child playing "house". It was small with sparse furnishings and no entertainment. I unpacked my guitar and notebook, looking forward to accomplishing my goal: 72 hours of talking to no one, and no one talking to me. No TV, no phone. Start time 10:00am.
By 3:00pm I was officially freaked out and fighting the urge to check my phone. I'd tired of playing guitar and there was no sound but a clock ticking. I wondered if I should take a walk but when I looked out the window I saw two nuns going down the path, their black robes billowing out behind them. Sister Pamela had been lovely, but I still felt shy and intimidated by the sight of them. I stayed in. I journaled. I prayed. I stared into space. I meditated. I checked the time: only 6pm. 64 hours left to go! I caved and picked up my phone. I posted photos on Facebook and bragged about my retreat. I put the phone down and felt ashamed of my need to seek reassurance on social media.
Making dinner for myself, and ONLY myself, was satisfying and diverted my attention from the unsettling feelings bubbling up inside me. I knew from my research on silent retreat that the feelings were important. With enough hours of isolation, we reach the opportunity to face ourselves, our traumas, all the things we push away in the busy, escapist opportunities of life. After dinner I found myself taking stock of my numerous faults and failures.
As darkness fell, fear took hold. This surprised me because I'm usually an adventurous, unafraid person. My cottage was quite far from the convent building and surrounded by dark forest. In the silence, sound was everywhere. A howling March wind blew, and lifeless tree branches made eerie sounds as they scraped together. I was reminded of the time I tried camping alone as a teen, when a mouse gently pawing the ground near my tent sounded like a bloodthirsty bear on a murderous rampage.
I prayed, asking Jesus to comfort me if he didn't have anything better to do that night. It helped and I went to bed, but slept little. My brain decided this would be a great time to relive my parents' funerals in 2005. How strange my dad's face looked in the coffin. How sadly beautiful my mom's portrait, instead of a coffin. And the awful day in 2019 when I stood vigil for 12 hours at the deathbed of my friend's 2-year-old son, who'd been healthy just days before. The sights and sounds of Pediatric ICU are unforgettable. I lay awake in bed, remembering. Amidst a sea of sorrow for what was experienced in that children's hospital I felt the nuns praying for me, their guest.
I was glad when a bright snowy morning chased away these dark memories, and I sang the hymn "Joy comes with the dawn, Joy comes with a morning song... Joy comes with a tune, and scatters the night with her song, Joy comes with the dawn." I walked outside surrounded by astonishing snow-hushed beauty, in my silence hearing every tiny sound of nature. It felt good to just BE. I wasn't Mom, or Wife, or Employee, or Supportive Friend. Just me. Simplified. 10am arrived. It was the 24-hour mark, yet I felt like it had been days. I was amazed at how much slower time seemed to pass. This later led to a valuable life change, which I wrote about in "How to Create Time: Fun with the Space-Time Continuum".
I spent another day reading, working on music, meditating, facing my personal faults. The urge to reach out to someone was unbearable. I caved again and picked up my phone. I didn't do social media this time but called a friend. We'd spent years on tour in a rock band together and she knew me better than I knew myself. I invited her to come to the cottage and hang out. I've got my own place tonight, come on girl, Convent Party 2021 let's do this! She's a wise friend and reminded me, "It's not what you came for. You can do this. Now hang up." I spent the next hour angry at myself for breaking my vow of silence, even for a 10-minute convo. Sheesh. Do nuns go through all this?
As the barest hint of evening crept into the sky, dark thoughts took hold. I recalled the night my mom refused treatment and chose to die. They ushered me into her room to say goodbye. I was 7 months pregnant with my first child and still mourning the loss of my dad 3 months earlier. Should I have talked her into fighting on? Her prognosis was poor, but what if they'd been wrong? Should I have gotten a second opinion? Maybe she was just depressed and needed a pep talk. Her mom had just died a month before Daddy. I was the only child and only grandchild, so all decisions fell on my shoulders.
I obsessed over the moment I said, "I respect your wish to go." Was she hoping I'd beg her to stay? She thought she'd drift off gracefully that night, but she lingered for two more horrible weeks. I couldn't stay by her side because my pregnancy was at risk. I went home to rest, and she died alone. Two months later I gave birth. My friends had parents to help with their babies. I was jealous, angry. I had to stay strong for my baby. I couldn't break down. And yet here, on Night Two of my silent retreat I broke down completely, 16 years later.
At dawn I emerged from my cottage feeling like the weird hermit on the mountain, eyes to the ground and heart radiating energy. I walked the convent's contemplative labyrinth and when I got to the center I felt cleansed, emptied of things I hadn't realized were still bothering me. Yet I was also filled, almost to bursting with a blessed assurance beyond understanding. I spent time in the tiny grotto devoted to Mary. Contemplating her, I was reminded that she endured far greater pain than I had. She survived and knew the eternal love of God. As would I. Instead of being drained by the work of parenting, I felt rewarded by it. I longed for my husband and children, my only remaining family. I saw a doorway from dark self-centeredness to tranquility, gratitude, and humility.
I didn't have the urge to reach out to anyone again. My remaining hours weren't as hard as the first 24. I felt very much "in the moment" with every little thing I did, like making tea and toast. My overactive brain was relieved by the simplicity: Water boiling. Scent of tea. Here is my toast. crunch crunch. Yum. The experience of silent retreat is a sort of detox one might experience in rehab. Much as an addict experiences shakes, sweats, terrors, and then emerges purified, the Spirit of any person can go through this purification by retreating from life and experiencing stillness. All that energy we use interacting with others, with technology and with the world, is turned inward on ourselves.
Upon being reborn into daily life, the heart is lightened and the senses sharpened. My ears were filled with winter birds twittering, a breeze blowing, Jenny's breathing as I pet her silky fur and returned my key to Sister Pamela. She gave me a knowing look as if she'd seen this transformation before. I'd unburdened myself of things I didn't know I'd buried; grief and anger that I hadn't faced. All in all, facing it wasn't so bad. It was worth it. We can't reach out and grasp new things if our hands are full carrying all our old baggage.
I'd lived through a dark night of the soul, and joy came with the dawn. I hope to do it again someday. And I hope you, dear reader, will try it too. If you can't get away for a whole weekend, here are some at-home variations to try:
Digital Detox: for 48 hours, live your life as usual but avoid phones, TV, computer, and radio. If you struggle with phone addiction, create a few Emergency Contacts and turn on Do Not Disturb so the phone will ring only in case of emergency. Keep it in a drawer: if needed, tape the drawer shut with a paper upon which you've written your reasons for seeking a digital detox.
Social Detox: if you choose not to disconnect from technology, try an entire weekend without human interaction. This includes visits to the store, so stock up beforehand. Be intentional about it and take stock of your life, and of yourself. Journaling or making a video diary can be helpful.
6, 12 or 24 Hours of Silence: if you can't get away from home and you live with people, there is still opportunity to strive for a period of solitude. Those who love you will understand. You may even inspire them to try it themselves!
6-12 hour Nature Retreat: any number of hours spent alone in nature is valuable, but if you can swing at least 6 hours you will feel some level of transformation. Bring your phone for safety but keep it on Do Not Disturb. Try to find a place in nature where people aren't walking by, causing you to feel self-conscious as you deeply experience nature. You may feel inspired to do "weird" stuff like put your ear to a tree or stand barefoot in a brook. Just go with it!
In closing, I'd like to share that The Community of St. John Baptist in Mendham NJ helps to run the Good Shepherd Home for Children in Cameroon, West Africa. An estimated 50,000 children are orphaned in that part of the world. Any donation you can make towards the nurturing of these children would be most appreciated. Thank you.
Wishing you sound spirit, sound mind, sound body.
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